CHAPTER TWO: A Fool’s Errand
The Heads, as it turned out, were also dripping in ink. They sat on withered stumps in a wide semi-circle, hemmed in on all sides by a ring of jagged stones.
They were, in fact, only heads—bodies not included. Their sunken eyes watched Grimwal and the trembling skeleton he had brought before them with uninterested expressionless gazes.
Aidan listened as Grimwal explained to the Elders how he had fallen from the bridge. The way Grimwal told it, he had simply lost his footing. There was no mention of the stranger with silver eyes. Whether that was because Grimwal had not seen him or not, Aidan wasn’t sure. He was beginning to wonder if silver eyes had simply been trying to escape this filthy purgatory.
When he arrived at the end of the tale, Grimwal put a hand on Aidan’s shoulder with an air of pride. “He deserves a place here,” he said, “just as much as I do.”
The Heads were quiet, their blinking the only thing distinguishing them as more than lopped off parts. It was an awkwardness that terrified.
“Aidan Lawrence,” one said at last. Its voice was like Grimwal’s—dull and growling. “We are agreed to allow you sanctuary In-Between, but only if—”
“But I don’t want sanctuary,” Aidan squeaked. “I don’t want to stay here.”
Grimwal’s grip tightened on his shoulder.
“Often,” the Head and its oily black wisp of a beard replied calmly, “we do not want what we need. But if you would let me finish?”
“Oh, sorry. Go ahead.”
“We are agreed to allow you sanctuary In-Between,” it repeated, “if you can tell us who you are.”
“He knows who he is,” Grimwal said.
“He knows his name,” the Head corrected. “He knows nothing of who Aidan Lawrence is.” It bored its eyes into the back of Aidan’s skull, searching. “Am I mistaken?”
Aidan shook his head.
“It is strange,” the Head went on. “The dead know who they are, perhaps to a greater degree than the living. Their entire life stretches out behind them in clear view, without borders, without secrets. To not have a past in death bespeaks treachery. This we cannot have. In-Between is for neither the innocent nor the guilty, and you may very well be the latter.”
“…are you saying this is my fault?” asked Aidan. “I did something that made me…forget who I am?”
“No. I am simply saying that you are an enigma and an ill omen. We have only ever had one other here who did not know who he was, and that ended badly.”
“Did he have silver eyes?”
The Head did not reply. Instead, it blinked up at Grimwal. “He cannot cross into Out-Shift; that much is clear. But he cannot remain with us. He is a flicker of chaos—undefined and unpredictable. You must get rid of him.”
Grimwal hesitated. “How?”
“Take him back to the slough by the bridge. Dig a grave and let him rot.”
A future In-Between would not have been much of a future at all, but Aidan could not take the thought of going back into the ground. Before crossing the bridge, he might have been content to lie there, but now if he had to crawl back under the earth he would toss and turn with burning questions until his bones grew moldy beneath mud and ink. But Grimwal’s hand came down heavily on his back and wrapped around his spine, crushing his options. He had no hope of evading him and his muscles, and certainly no chance of outrunning him on skeleton legs over squishy terrain. He had nothing to bargain with; no words to plead; and no one to call on for help.
“There you are, Bare Bones!”
This new voice was grating, too, but not from pus and disuse. It was sudden and deafening in the fearful stillness. All eyes fell to its source, and Aidan’s sockets were just as bewildered as any of them. It was a man in a bright blue coat, the hems of which swept below his knees. Golden buttons were fastened all the way up to his throat so that his neck was covered. His hair was fiery red and stuck straight up in immaculate shocks; the amount of gel it must have taken to achieve that was impressive. But nothing was as impressive as his makeup. His face was a perfect white without a single line or crack. His eyes hid behind black crosses that stretched down his cheeks and up past his eyebrows. His lips were the same—black and extended well beyond their natural bounds. He was a mime with a head of fire, ridiculous and garish, and Aidan couldn’t have been happier to see him.
“Here I am,” he said at once. His lack-of-a-memory could not place this idiot, but that hardly mattered; he looked alive and he was not made of ink.
“Go away, fool,” Grimwal growled. “He’s not for you.”
“Well, you don’t seem to want him.”
Grimwal couldn’t find an answer to that, and the fool used the momentary silence to hook his arm through Aidan’s. “I happen to have every confidence that he will make a superb company member,” the fool said with his devil-painted grin. “I hope you will not begrudge Sir Hugo and me the chance to put him to the test.”
“Let him go,” the Head commanded Grimwal. It seemed to have been the name—Sir Hugo—that had done it. All the Heads had their eyes wide open and their eyebrows knitted together in anger, but there was fear there, too, and it had the upper hand.
“Much obliged,” the fool said. “It’s been a pleasure, as always. Come along, Bare Bones.” He steered Aidan away, out of the circle of rocks. They seemed to be going steadily upwards, and it was not until the ground had become an obvious slope that the fool spoke again in a much quieter voice.
“There are many things you just don’t do, in both life and death, Bare Bones. Becoming part of In-Between is one of them. It’s mind-numbing. Poison. From their words to their ugly faces…it’s a disgusting little place. A chopped off sliver of existence on the threshold of death.”
“Sorry,” said Aidan.
The fool waved a hand. “Well, I suppose it’s not really your fault, is it. You just took a bad step on the way over.”
Much later, Aidan would wonder why he didn’t mention the stranger with silver eyes. He supposed that, at the time, it had been part of a desire to uncomplicate his situation as much as possible and reduce the unknown variables that had trickled into his afterlife. But whatever the reason, he said nothing and let the fool think he had simply tumbled off the white bridge of his own accord.
He led him up the steep banks of In-Between, slipping and sliding occasionally in the muck. Aidan had an even worse time of it, and more than once he was admonished with motivating monikers such as “great baby.” After their legs, hands, and—in Aidan’s case—entire bodies had become encrusted with mud they broke the ledge and staggered dazedly out onto solid, dusty ground. The white bridge was just visible, peering out over the massive trench of In-Between, sinister and hissing with mist.
“Forget about going back,” the fool said. “Forget anything about who you were.”
“Already done,” said Aidan.
“You had your time there, and now it’s over. You can’t cross again.”
“I don’t plan to,” Aidan reassured him. “I really don’t remember anything. I’ll just be happy to…not be in danger, I guess.”
“Excellent. Your name?”
There was that devil’s smile. “Ah! I thought you said you didn’t remember anything?”
“My headstone.” Aidan explained awkwardly, but the fool laughed and shook his head.
“Calm down. I’m Peter. Peter Grey.”
Aidan took this as a sign that the subject was meant to change. He said it was nice to meet Peter, which he supposed it was, at least equally as much as it wasn’t. He hoped that he wasn’t planning to lead him into another cult. As they moved further away from the bridge, following some path that Peter apparently knew, Aidan wondered if he should ask who Sir Hugo was, or the company, or for that matter anything at all. But perhaps it was best to maintain the silence that had descended between them.
Peter made no attempt at conversation, either. For a very long time they traveled across fields of dry, brittle grass, moving quickly and quietly towards who-knew-where. From all sides came sounds of what Aidan guessed were frogs; they made a throaty sort of croak, but they kept firmly out of sight.
When at last they reached the edge of a field so over-run by frogs that Aidan thought he might never hear anything else, the mist parted before a town. It was a lost and forgotten piece of a jig-saw puzzle. It sat squarely in the middle of nowhere and wasn’t even an entire town—just a small part consisting of a few streets of buildings and a train station.
“Lyle’s way,” Peter said and added, “It’s both In-Shift and Out-shift. At least, those few streets and this station are.”
He arched an eyebrow in amusement. “In-Shift is for those who live. Out-Shift is for those who don’t.”
“What about cemeteries?” Aidan asked. “Who are they for?”
“Ah. They are places of Both. Plant a corpse in the ground and the surrounding land welcomes any foot that crosses it. Now shut up a moment.”
They were entering the town fragment. Aidan wasn’t sure he entirely understood how these shifts and things worked, but he did as he was told and skulked along with Peter. They kept to the shadows of walkways and overhangs, despite the streets being empty. The train station had only one train waiting, and as they reached it the final whistles were sounding.
“We don’t have tickets,” said Aidan as Peter pulled him up onto the platform and began running for one a car with an open door.
“Don’t need them,” the fool called over his shoulder. He leapt into the car and spun about to hold out his hands for Aidan, who hesitated only a fraction of a second before allowing himself to be yanked inside. Almost immediately the whistles fell silent and the train began to lurch away from the station.
(Chapter Two continues next Thursday….in the meantime, follow us on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter @companyofsouls!)